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Chamber Orchestra Review Print

Raleigh Civic Symphony Offers New Views of Old Masters

February 27, 2005 - Raleigh, NC:

It – the programming provided by the Raleigh Civic Symphony Association – ain't market-driven, and that's good. And the two orchestras fielded by the Association have the added advantage of a built-in audience, consisting of lots of students – and that's good, since many others lament the certain demise (they say) of classical concerts as we know them, since so many fans – biddies and geezers – are (they say) graying out and dying off. But perhaps the problem is in fact those market-driven presentations of the same old stuff, dredged up from museum archives. Who knows? We do know, for sure, that the RCSA offers unusual programs, that those programs are usually very well realized, and that the RCSA's Music Director, Randolph Foy – like his colleagues at the Chapel Hill Philharmonia and at our several other community and town-&-gown orchestras hereabouts – manages to attract crowds of folks who aren't often seen at concerts with higher ticket prices where the tried-and-true reigns.

On the afternoon of February 27, the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra, one of the RCSA's two groups, presented a program dubbed – by Foy – "EXTREME MAKEOVERS: Revisions, Restorations and Transformations." The "originals" were Schubert and music once attributed to Pergolesi, and the makeover artists were, respectively, Luciano Berio (of Sinfonia fame) and Igor Stravinsky. The concert was a qualified success, with the mixed verdict resulting from some problems with execution and some problems with the strange hodgepodge that is the Schubert-Berio piece.

But first things first. The RCCO, as its name suggests, is the smaller of Foy's two orchestras, and it consisted of 38 players this go-'round. The concert was in the ballroom of the Student Center, and the musicians were on a platform, which greatly facilitated seeing them. I'm not sure the sound was significantly better, but the space beneath the players may have contributed some added resonance. The boards were a problem at one point when a doublebass' endpin slipped through a crack in the floor. It was a fleeting incident that didn't disrupt the performance in the least but may have alarmed the bassist and the conductor.

The concert began with Berio's completion of sketches said to have been intended for a tenth symphony by Schubert. Much as I love Schubert's music, I must say I'd never heard of this till the RCSA announced this program. Berio's Sinfonia, which enjoyed amazing popularity as a result of a recording by the swingle singers and the NY Philharmonic, is a wild mixture of this and that, a la Ives but with more polish. It's impossible to tell if the composer thought of this landmark score when he took up Schubert's sketches, but there's a big difference in his approach here, because the symphony, called "Rendering," is partly Schubert and partly Berio. The Schubert sounds like Schubert, and the orchestrations are convincing enough. But then we reach a point where the sketches end, and there's a bit of chiming from a celesta, and Berio takes over, reflecting on this and that in distinctly non-Schubertian style, and in modern orchestral garb. After a bit, it's back to Schubert, then the celesta, then Berio. In the folder of sketches was a sheet clearly not related to the tentative symphony – Berio set it, too. It's strange, and on first hearing it didn't work very well. It is, in essence, two pieces, sliced and tacked together – or so it seemed. And alas the performance was not one of the RCCO's better efforts. There was plenty of strangeness in the music, but when even strange things sound strange, chances are the rendering – by which I mean in this case the execution of the score – is flawed. I wouldn't have missed the chance to hear it, and I wouldn't mind hearing it again, out of curiosity, but for now we'll call it a flawed work that probably merits more strenuous preparation – if not some substantial editing. Alternately, it would be nice to hear the Schubert parts all by themselves and then Berio's bits, together.

The second half of the program was a different matter altogether, for it was devoted to Stravinksky's utterly charming Pulcinella ballet, given in the form of an eight-part orchestral suite. The original is for orchestra with solo voices, and it's based on what Stravinsky thought were works by Pergolesi, although much later research revealed that many of them are by Domenico Gallo. In 1919-20, when the music was prepared for Diaghilev (Foy's outstanding notes tell us), no one knew.... (The premiere, in Paris, must have been really something, since Ansermet conducted and the scenery and costumes were by Picasso!) And it really doesn't matter, when all is said and done. The music is delightful in its original forms – samples of several trio sonatas were played before the Suite – and in Stravinsky's stylistically-consistent rendering. And it may be helpful to remember that our parents and grandparents didn't hear "early music" nearly as much as we do – and that when they did, it was often in transcriptions (by Stoki and many others) or in updatings, like this ballet or Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances. Even Vivaldi's now-ubiquitous Four Seasons were virtually unknown in America till the dawn of the Lp era. So this ballet is ok, and it's good stuff, on top of that.

The performance was fairly good, too. The fact that it is, as stated, stylistically consistent surely helped, and most of the playing was not tentative, as in the Schubert-Berio. Those who stayed for this second part were thus rewarded with a satisfying presentation of music that turns up rarely in live performances. Readers who would care to hear the complete score can't go wrong with a stunning mono recording by the Cleveland Orchestra led by Stravinsky himself, reissued by Sony and perhaps out of print – but I've seen several copies of the blue-label Columbia original in second-hand stores in the past few months.

The RCSA presents "American Originals," parts 1 & 2 – a concert by the full Raleigh Civic Symphony on April 17 and another by this chamber ensemble on April 24. And speaking of the swingle singers, that estimable ensemble appears at Elon University on March 10. See our Triad calendar for details.